By Leah Asmelash
By 2018, the majority of North Carolina counties will have more people over the age of 60 than school-age kids.
But according to Alan Winstead, who heads Meals on Wheels Wake County, public funding and the state budget are not keeping pace with that reality.
Both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly have now released their versions of the state budget, but neither version has enough money to keep up with the growing needs of older people.
The House and the Senate plans for the budget each appropriate about $967,000 to enhance the Home and Community Care Block Grant, a government program that provides services for the elderly and their caregivers, including programs such as Meals On Wheels. Block grants are large chunks of money given to governments to spend as they see fit – with guidelines.
Gerald McNair is a volunteer with Meals on Wheels in Wake County who was packing hot dog buns, coleslaw and bananas into thermal bags for transport to recipients in Raleigh on Tuesday morning.
McNair said he loves people and loves working with older people. He sees Meals On Wheels as a way to help out while he still can. For most of his time with the program, it’s been funded with non-recurring, one-time money only – the type of allotment that’s granted at the whim of lawmakers. It could disappear in future years or become a bargaining chip when lawmakers from the House and Senate negotiate the final budget.
Advocates say the Home and Community Care Block Grant needs more money than just about a million dollars. At least 15 different services receive money from the grant, county officials decided which of those programs to fund.
Meals on Wheels, in-home aid services and transportation assistance for seniors and people with disabilities are the most used and most funded programs.
Access to these services for people who need them isn’t as simple as filling out an application – there is a waiting list of over 10,000 people. That number could be higher, but some people needing immediate assistance forego the waiting list and prefer to find services on their own, said Mary Bethel, who heads the North Carolina Coalition on Aging.
The need is likely greater.
If the General Assembly put $7 million in new money into the block grant, it would reduce the waiting list by 5,500 people, Bethel estimated.
Additionally, if they put the money into the two most favored services, Bethel said the program could serve an additional 9,000 homebound adults with home delivered meals through Meals on Wheels, and another 2,441 older adults with in-home services.
Services that are state-mandated, such as adult protective services and guardianship, don’t even get the majority of their funding from the state. Instead, they get most of their funding from county budgets. Much of the rest of funding comes from the federal government. However, President Donald Trump’s budget recommended the Social Services Block Grant not be funded at all, and these services are at risk of losing their federal funding. Though these services are state-mandated, the state only funds 3 percent of adult protective services and 4 percent of guardianship.
“We think it’s a real problem when you got state-mandated services, but yet the state doesn’t fund them,” Bethel said.
The senate budget bill also includes a proposal to move toward regional social services departments, which would take social services, such as adult protective services and guardianship, out of county control. But the majority of funding for those programs comes from county budgets.
That provision in the Senate budget concerns the coalition because social services for the elderly may lose even more of their funding, Bethel said.
“Both the house and the senate budget don’t go far enough in addressing the needs of older adults,” she said. “There was no additional funding other than the non-recurring funding from the block grant, which was in there this year and set to expire next year, unless [the legislature] does something to continue it.”
Army Sgt. Jeremy Muncert helps pack meals for Meals on Wheels. He was injured during his time in the military and is now disabled, but likes volunteering with Meals On Wheels because he said it makes him feel useful. Many of Wake County’s volunteer meal packers are living with varying disabilities.
Director Sharon Lawson says the program does what they can and their dedicated volunteers make what they do possible.
Nonetheless, Winstead said the program needs additional public dollars to help meet the need. Non-recurring funds make it difficult for local programs to plan for long-term growth, he said, and slows them down when adding new people.
“The one thing that we don’t want to do is get people started on receiving Meals on Wheels and then run short of money,” Winstead said. “We’re very slow to add people on unless we are fairly certain there will be continuing funds to keep those people on. Because you don’t want a person who needs Meals on Wheels to start and six weeks, or six months later tell them we have to discontinue their service because there are no available funds.”
Ultimately, Winstead says Meals on Wheels saves public money because, even with the small amount of money the program receives, elderly recipients, who often live alone, get meals and a volunteer to check up on them.
The program improves their nutrition and helps them feel safer, Winstead said. That allows the seniors to keep living in the community rather than in an institution.
“It really is a good bargain if we can just get the funding that we need in order to serve everybody who needs the service,” Winstead said.